In 2008, Will It Be Mormon in America?
Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney could become the first Mormon in the White House.
BY: Terry Eastland
Excerpted with permission from The Weekly Standard.
You remember, or perhaps you don't, Sen. Orrin Hatch's 2000 presidential campaign. The senator talks about it in soft inflections, recalling this event and that debate. But especially he talks about what motivated him to run. Hatch, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, cites polling data from 1999 suggesting that 17 percent of Americans wouldn't vote for a Mormon for president under any circumstances.
"One reason I ran was to knock down the prejudicial wall that exists" against Mormons, he says. "I wanted to make it easier for the next candidate of my faith."
That next candidate just might be Mitt Romney, the Republican governor of Massachusetts. But would his religion hurt him? Would he run into a prejudicial wall? Maybe, though there are reasons to think otherwise.
Apparently some people so dislike Mormonism, or find it so odd, that they wouldn't vote for a Mormon. You can speculate about why that is. Maybe it's the hierarchical character of the church. Or maybe it's the church's secrecy about things like finances or temple rituals. Then there's polygamy, introduced by Joseph Smith (who had 49 wives) and practiced until, a century ago, the church finally realized that the federal government would not tolerate it.
Church and State
And there's church and state: Some people fear that, deep down, Mormons want to gain control of the government and turn the United States into their kingdom of God.
Some of those objections might fade if voters got to know a Mormon of compelling political credentials, and came to feel comfortable with him. Other objections might have to be answered directly. In regard to polygamy, for example, it would be unfair to hang that history around the neck of Romney, the husband of one and only one wife since their marriage 36 years ago.
As for church and state, Mormons don't seem especially threatening to the prevailing order. The church doesn't endorse candidates. It stays out of partisan matters, refusing even to let individual churches or their membership lists be used for partisan purposes. It does encourage citizens to vote: Before elections the church urges members to consider the issues and candidates, "and then vote for the people that best represent their ideas of good government," according to a spokesman.
Like most churches, it participates in law cases raising religious liberty issues, often partnering with religious bodies of diverse beliefs. Here, in a friend-of-the court capacity, the church seeks to protect its ability to proselytize and to hire church officials and employees.
The church does occasionally speak out on what it calls "matters of principle." In the 1970s and early 1980s, it helped defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. More recently it has affirmed the traditional definition of marriage and contributed to referendum drives banning same-sex unions. The church seems to distinguish ballot-measures from elections for office, seeing only the latter as partisan. In any case, the church's efforts in these respects have a common theme--protection of the traditional family.
Policy and Faith
Romney hasn't felt compelled to regard the church's guidance to its members as sufficient in matters of public policy. He emphasizes his independence in assessing issues. He points out that he doesn't drink, consistent with what his church advises, yet he signed a bill permitting liquor sales on Sunday because "there is nothing wrong with drinking alcohol if you do it properly and responsibly."